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who speaks for me? @ riverside theatres, parramatta


Production photopgraphy by Claire Cornu.

Yes ,’’ verbatim theatre ‘ is about narrative and telling stories and yes it is most important that these particular stories be told, and we hear different voices from around the world ( in this case in particular our Asian neighbours ) but I wouldn’t really classify this as ‘theatre’ as such , rather perhaps as an autobiographical talk or lecture?

We learn the stories of three very different yet at times similar stories of families who have been refugees and asylum seekers, facing the problem of survival in their home country, escaping and being in horrendous refugee camps and then the culture shock of arriving in Australia , not speaking English and depending on another family member to translate and be their ‘voice ‘. Issues such as forced marriages, workplace bullying and living with disability are also raised.

Performance 4A have created a now recognized major position within the local theatre scene by using a fairly specific format: creation of autobiographical shows telling Asian-Australian stories, crafted from spoken narrative, archival audio and projected photos and footage (including The Serpent’s Table; Yasukichi Murakami – Through a Distant Lens and Stories East & West).

Their most recent production, In Between Two, was premiered as part of the Sydney Festival earlier this year.

This production is a collaboration between National Theatre of Parramatta and Performance 4A. We follow the lives of three families one from Bhutan , one from Cambodia and another from Vietnam .What shines through is love of family , a strong work ethic and persistence in the struggle to simply survive. Also how thrilled these families are to end up here in Australia.

All three groups simply stand stiffly at the microphones either side of the stage . Much is made of rare, treasured family photos interwoven in the narrative.

First, we meet Puspa Lal and Chandra Acharya, bright and colourful in Bhutanese clothing, a husband and wife who fled Bhutan with their three children after the government expelled all ethnic Nepalis from the country. The Acharyas were in various refugee camps for an unimaginable 17 years (!) before being granted Australian visas, during which time their three young children became adults.

They arrived in Sydney as part of a major humanitarian program to settle 5000 Bhutanese refugees in Australia. Here in Sydney Puspa helps new migrants adjust to life Australia and Chandra is learning English but depends on Puspa to translate and speak for her.

Next we learn about the life of Vietnamese refugee, Bà Quôc Viêt, who fled her homeland by boat with her daughter Sophie To. Bà and Sophie left Vietnam by a fishing boat after the VietCong occupation of their village, and were dramatically rescued at sea by a US naval ship who ferried them to a refugee camp in Singapore. They were resettled here in Australia in 1983 .

Renowned in Vietnam and parts of south-east Asia for her cooking expertise, Bà Quôc Viêt never let a lack of English get in her way, especially when it came to communicating with her grandson William who was born profoundly deaf. As William only learned English at his special needs school, Sophie has to translate between Bà, William and his boyfriend Michael.

The final tale is the story of Cambodian mother and son Vanna and Ly Heang Seang who fled Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror. A pregnant Ly Heang, her husband and three small children walked to Thailand – she carried baby Vanna the whole way. Ly Heang Seang, once here in Australia, was desperately determined to get her driver’s license – she sat for the written test a total of 31 times before succeeding!

Throughout her story, Ly Heang Seang relies on her son, Vanna, for communicating in English including aid in the meetings with his school principal and at a later stage, providing the words to assist Ly Heang Seang to triumph over workplace bullying .

The stories of these strong, inspirational women shine through. Their incredible stories serve to remind us of the suffering and strength at the core of the migrant and asylum seeker experience.

Running time just under 90 minutes without interval.

WHO SPEAKS FOR ME?, co-directed by Annette Shun Wah and William Yang, played at Riverside Theatres Parramatta between the 12th and 15th October. Cast- Ly Heang Seang, Vanna Seang, Ba Quoc Viet,n Sophie To, William Uy Vu Le, Puspa lal Acharya, Chandra Acharya



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